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Historian marks debt to ‘forgotten’ women who set up birth control clinics in Manchester

By Iram Ramzan

‘Brave and pioneering’ women who established birth control clinics in working class communities during the 20s should be commemorated, says a University of Manchester historian.

Dr Clare Debenham, of the School of Social Sciences, said volunteers in the interwar years saved the lives of many mothers during a time of rising maternal mortality.

One of the first voluntary clinics giving free advice was started in Greengate, Salford, in 1926 by Charis Frankenburg and Mary Stocks.  It was only the third clinic of its kind in the country.

“They have been hidden from history but now it’s time for their contribution to be recognised,” said Dr Debenham. “They also gave women more control of their own fertility – a hugely significant achievement.”

Though middle class women could pay for birth control advice from their doctors, working class mothers could not afford the same luxury.   

The clinic drew support from all political classes: Charis was an active Conservative, Mary a Labour Party supporter and the receptionist a Communist. They had connections with women’s organisations in the city and it was through these that Charis was able to secure premises above a baker’s shop for the controversial clinic.

 The clinic gradually became popular.  The clinic volunteers were mothers themselves and so related to their clients.

 Charis is recorded as saying said: “Our mothers feel they have been talked to by somebody who understands their problems. We do not hurry them. They talk a long time, and it generally takes a long time to diagnose the particulars”.

As the clinic was in the vicinity of the Catholic Cathedral, Bishop Henshaw felt the birth controllers were deliberately challenging his authority. There were threats of violence as he urged his followers to chase it from the streets.

However, when the clinic was denounced at a Catholic Protest Meeting it had the effect of giving the clinic publicity and so attracted clients. Eventually the crisis calmed when a representative of the Chief Constable spoke to the Bishop’s Secretary.

By 1931, Manchester was the first council in the country to run clinics, but the initiative was not followed by other local authorities.

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